By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Now that it’s been proven that dietary fat isn’t the nemesis of good health—and thanks, in part, to the wildly popular ketogenic diet—high-fat foods are starting to enjoy a resurgence in popularity. Not all high-fat foods are necessarily nutritious or things I’d recommend eating regularly, but there is one that deserves a special spotlight: the avocado.
Did you know that an avocado is actually a fruit? More specifically, the avocado is considered a single-seeded berry. Regardless of whether you call it a vegetable (because, after all, it’s green!), a fruit, or a berry, one thing’s for sure: Avocados are nutritional powerhouses that can be eaten a number of delicious ways. Let’s take a closer look at what makes the avocado such a superfood.
Avocados are an excellent source of nearly 20 important vitamins and nutrients. Half of an avocado has 26% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of vitamin K, 20% RDI of folate, and 17% RDI of vitamin C. It’s also a good source of vitamin E and potassium, and contains smaller amounts of riboflavin, copper, magnesium, and niacin.
Avocados also contain other antioxidant nutrients, such as lutein and zeaxanthin, which are critical for eye health, as well as glutathione and phenols, which have been reported to have anti-cancer properties. They’re also low in sugar and carbohydrates and high in fiber, which aids in digestion.1
But by and large, what avocados contain more than anything is fat. In fact, most of the calories come from fat. However, most of this fat is the beneficial monounsaturated variety—specifically oleic acid. This same fatty acid is also found in olives and olive oil. Therefore the avocado has many of the same heart-health benefits as my beloved olive oil.
Which brings me to…
Avocado Health Benefits
Avocado’s health benefits are plentiful. Let’s first talk about the monounsaturated fats.
Not only do monounsaturated fats reduce inflammation, they have a positive effect on cholesterol. Studies also show how, specifically, the addition of avocados to the diet can improve heart health.
In a study of 45 people who were obese and had high cholesterol, the participants were given three cholesterol-lowering diets for five weeks each: a low-fat diet, a moderate-fat diet that included one avocado per day, and a moderate-fat diet that used oleic acids (here, sunflower or canola oils) to match the fatty acid content of one avocado.
All diets resulted in lowered LDL cholesterol, but the avocado diet produced the greatest reduction. Furthermore, only the avocado diet significantly decreased LDL particle number, small dense LDL cholesterol, and LDL/HDL ratio. The researchers concluded that, “avocados have beneficial effects on cardio-metabolic risk factors that extend beyond their heart-healthy fatty acid profile.”2
In the same vein, avocados can help combat metabolic syndrome—a collection of risk factors (high blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol, and body mass index; and increased waist measurement) that dramatically increases risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The writers of a recent scientific review stated that, “The lipid‐lowering, antihypertensive, antidiabetic, anti‐obesity, antithrombotic, antiatherosclerotic, and cardioprotective effects of avocado have been demonstrated in several studies.”3
Oleic acid also has positive effects on brain health. Research shows that it helps to enhance memory and cognition, while lowering the risk of depression.4 And the antioxidants in avocados play a key role in preventing neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.5
Despite being so high in calories (roughly 300) and fat content (upwards of 30 grams), avocados may also aid in weight loss. This may seem counterintuitive, but there are a couple reasons for it.
First, fat acts as an excellent appetite suppressant, helping you feel fuller for longer. One study found that those who ate avocado with their meal were 23% more satisfied and had 28% less desire to eat again during the following five hours, compared to those who didn’t have any avocado.6
Second, by changing the way certain fat genes are expressed, the monounsaturated fat in avocados help to shrink belly fat and prevent fat from accumulating in the midsection.7
Finally, avocados may give your metabolism a boost. A study that examined diets high in saturated fats vs. oleic acids (monounsaturated fat) found that oleic acids increased exercise endurance and post-meal metabolism.8
Other possible avocado health benefits include prevention of eye diseases (thanks to the lutein and zeaxanthin), gum disease, and even arthritis.
Truth be told, there’s really very few downsides to eating avocados. Interestingly enough, if you are seriously allergic to latex, you may want to avoid avocados, which contain some of the same allergens found in latex. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns.
Types of Avocados
If you go by what’s available at your standard grocery store, you’d think only one or two types of avocados existed in this world—but that’s not the case at all. There are hundreds of varieties, all different sizes, shapes, and colors.
Hass avocados are, by far, the most popular and well known. They make up 97% of avocado sales in the United States. They’re great because they’re always “in season,” so you’ll never have a problem finding them.
There is a consideration you may want to take into account, though. The majority of Hass avocados come from Mexico. Over a billion pounds are exported each year. This enormous industry has caused some concern about environmental impact, including deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.
I’m not at all suggesting that you forgo imported Hass avocados, especially if that’s all that’s available to you. But if it’s possible, I encourage you to consider giving one or more of the other amazing varieties grown in this country a try as well! In doing so, you’d be backing American agriculture—and if you live in Florida or California (where most avocados are grown in the states), you have the added bonus of being able to support your local farmers and farmer’s markets.
Just a few of the avocados native to Florida are Choquette, Arue, Black Prince, and Catalina. Admittely, as a Florida resident, I’m slightly biased toward Florida-grown avocados. And along with Hass, California grows Fuerte, Gwen, Reed, and believe it or not, a type called Bacon (no pigs involved!). Check your local health food store or organic market for these and other interesting varieties.
And here’s more good news: If you’re on a budget and can’t afford to buy organic, don’t fret. Avocados are on the Environmental Working Group’s list of “Clean 15.” This means your risk of harmful pesticide exposure is low, so you can choose conventionally grown avocados with greater confidence.
How to Eat Avocado
When it comes to eating an avocado, the sky’s the limit! You can top salads, soups and chilis, eggs, and casseroles with sliced avocado. You can blend an avocado into a smoothie. Mashed avocado makes an excellent substitute for sour cream or mayo, and are wonderful on toast – alone or with eggs.
You can also season half an avocado with some salt and pepper and simply spoon it out and enjoy. Stuffed avocados are awesome, and you can even grill or pickle them. Then of course, there’s everyone’s favorite: good ole guacamole!
Here are some recipes to get you started, but I encourage you to get creative with your avocado!
Avocado-Egg Salad Recipe
- Two hard boiled organic eggs, chopped
- One ripe avocado, peeled and diced
- 1 Tbsp avocado oil-based mayo
- One strip of sugar-free, nitrate-free bacon, cooked and chopped
- 1 tsp dried dill (or to taste)
- Himalayan pink salt and pepper, to taste
Gently fold all ingredients together except bacon. Once combined, top the salad with bacon. Makes 1-2 servings, depending on how hungry you are!
Easy Guacamole Recipe
- 2 to 3 avocados
- Flavored olive oil – jalapeño-garlic, lemon or garlic
- Himalayan or sea salt, to taste
- Optional: Mexican Spice Blend, to taste
- Optional: fresh lime or lemon juice
Slice avocados in half, scoop flesh out with a spoon and put it into a bowl. Add a tablespoon or two of flavored olive oil – jalapeño-garlic is a favorite in my house, but garlic and lemon also are great. Mash with a fork until smooth and creamy. Season with a little natural salt and optional Mexican Spice Blend. Add optional squeeze of lime or lemon juice if you like. Serve in a small bowl and use carrot sticks, cucumber slices, bell pepper sticks, or almond flour-based crackers instead of chips.
Dreher M, Davenport AJ. Hass Avocado Composition and Potential Health Effects. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2013 May; 53(7): 738–750.
Wang L, et al. Effect of a moderate fat diet with and without avocados on lipoprotein particle number, size and subclasses in overweight and obese adults: a randomized, controlled trial. J Am Heart Assoc. 2015 Jan 7;4(1):e001355. Last accessed Sept. 11, 2019.
Tabeshpour J, et al. Effects of avocado (persea Americana) on metabolic syndrome: a comprehensive systematic review. Phytother Res. 2017 Jun;31(6):819-37. Last accessed Sept. 12, 2019.
Campolongo P, et al. Fat-induced satiety factor oleoylethanolamide enhances memory consolidation. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2009 May 12;106(19):8027-31. Last accessed Sept. 11, 2019.
Ameer K. Avocado as a major dietary source of antioxidants and its preventive role in neurodegenerative diseases. Adv Neurobiol. 2016;12:37-54. Last accessed Sept. 11, 2019.
Wien M, et al. A randomized 3×3 crossover study to evaluate the effect of Hass avocado intake on post-ingestive satiety, glucose and insulin levels, and subsequent energy intake in overweight adults. Nutr J. 2013 Nov 27;12:155. Last accessed Sept. 12, 2019.
Paniagua JA, et al. Monounsaturated fat-rich diet prevents central body fat distribution and decreases postprandial adiponectin expression induced by a carbohydrate-rich diet in insulin-resistant subjects. Diabetes Care. 2007 Jul;30(7):1717-23. Last accessed Sept. 11, 2019.
Kien CL, et al. Increasing dietary palmitic acid decreases fat oxidation and daily energy expenditure. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005 Aug;82(2):320-6. Last accessed Sept. 12, 2019.
Florida Avocado Varieties. USDA. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/FloridaAvocadoVarieties.pdf
California Avocados. https://www.californiaavocado.com/avocado101/avocado-varieties
© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.